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‘Creed II’ Lands a Knockout Punch

Jeremiah

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While watching Creed II, I found myself wondering what the subtext of the movie might be. By the third act, I realized there was none there, but I found myself getting energized in spite of myself. In a rare feat, the last act of Creed II is such a joyous celebration of the form.

Sequels are ubiquitous in modern-day Hollywood, as they were in the old days of Hollywood as well. Likewise, franchises are not inherently new, either. The number one question that every screenwriter and director must ask themselves when making a sequel or another installment of a franchise is not, should not be, “How much homework should we give the audience?” The question should be, “Why?”

It is a question that Creed II never quite answers. Let me be clear, Creed II is not a bad movie. It is, however, a shallow one. Directed by Steven Caple, Jr much of the movie’s themes and story are surface level male bravado chest thumping.

Three years after Adonis Creed’s (Michael B. Jordan) loss in the first Creed we see him win the Heavyweight Champion of the World. An entire journey has taken place, off-screen. Adonis and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) continue to have a tender father/son/mentor relationship and Rocky seems to be in remission from his bout with cancer.

After the fight, Adonis proposes to Bianca (Tessa Thompson). It’s a sweet scene because it’s rooted in a bit of reality. If you remember, Bianca is hard of hearing. She has just gotten out of the shower, her hearing aids out, and Adonis, taking a cue from Rocky’s advice, pours his heart out to her. He is unaware that she can’t hear him because she has her back to him. On his knees, with a ring in his hand, Bianca screams when she turns around and sees him and slams the door.

Caple has a way with his actors that comes across almost immediately scenes like this. Bianca, now with her hearing aids in, asks Adonis to repeat himself. Caple and his cameraman, Kramer Morgenthau, frame the scene by having the two express themselves from opposite sides of a closed door. An old trick, but effective none the less.

The key in a scene likes this lies in the editing. Curiously the editing is credited to a team of three people, Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb. This could go a little way into explaining the odd changes in the rhythm of Creed II. Though in the movie’s defense the pacing of the movie is almost always consistent with what is going on on the screen. But I found my mind wandering as Creed II began to sag towards the middle.

Much of the first act deals with Adonis and Bianca’s preparing to get married and his satiated ego. The two decide to move to LA for Bianca’s music career and so set about packing. The scenes between Jordan and Thompson are captivating if only because screen couples like them are exceedingly rare. They compliment each other, you can see what the other sees in them, and they are the voice of reason that the other listens to. 

But Adonis cannot by screenwriting law be happy for too long. Or else what would be the point of a sequel? Enter Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Viktor (Florian Munteanu) Drago. Ivan Drago, for those who may not know, killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. Rocky avenged Apollo’s death as well as defeating Russia and communism. It was the eighties, you had to be there.

A promoter, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Thornsby) announces days after Creed’s title bout, that Viktor is looking to settle old scores. While at a club watching Bianca perform, Adonis is approached by Buddy. Adonis resents being blindsided but not as much as having his father used as an excuse for a grudge match. Buddy defends his tactics, “You think the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ just happened? Someone forced that into being.”

Lundgren is more infamous than famous. Unlike Stallone, he is not as well known and his movies are not loved in the same way. But Lundgren has a nice solid granite face perfect for the type of emoting Creed II is looking for. Not to mention he is allowed to give a backstory and pathos to a character who was essentially a giant plot device.

Old and grizzled he trains his son Viktor into being more machine than man. Ivan’s wife left after Rocky beat him. Russia abandoned him as well. Everything vanished after that pivotal moment. He wants revenge but he also wants his wife, his country, he wants his life back. A life he hasn’t had in some thirty years.

Munteanu is a beast of muscle and sinew and looks every bit the son of Lundgren. Creed II allows for us to see Ivan and Viktor outside the ring. In many ways, the Rocky/Adonis relationship is put aside to focus on Ivan and Viktor’s. A smart thing because it feels as if Rocky and Adonis have run out of things to say to each other.

Viktor and Adonis fight twice. The first fight is the fight that has Adonis get beaten almost to death. After all, you can’t have a hero overcome if he doesn’t have anything to overcome. Viktor is perhaps too zealous and he throws an extra punch disqualifying the match.

Bianca becomes pregnant and Adonis must repair himself, both physically and emotionally. Rocky, of course, will help him and the four men will meet together in the ring for one last time. What you see is what you get with Creed II and it’s kind of disappointing. 

The script by Juel Taylor and Stallone feels thin and protracted. While I found myself engaged with the Drago’s story, I also found myself oddly removed from Creed’s. Creed II seems to struggle to come up with any kind of emotion to mine despite the fact that having the son fight the son of the man who killed his father would be more than enough.

But Creed II tiptoes around that. Apollo’s death is talked about but little of said about the fact that Ivan killed a man. Lundgren and Stallone have a wonderful scene together, early on, in Rocky’s restaurant. It’s a quiet tense scene with each actor proving they have more depth than often criticized. Lundgren, in particular, gives us a glimpse of an actor capable of much more than the action roles he is known for.

Sadly, much of Creed II concerns itself with Adonis trying to prove his manhood. I love macho grandstanding melodrama as much as the next guy, witness my love for Warrior or even the first Creed. But Taylor and Stallone’s script feels shallow as if the plot wasn’t meant to be the plot and instead got shoved in for lack of a better idea.

Caple finds ways around this though. As mentioned before the Bianca and Creed relationship is a lynchpin of Creed II. Bianca even gets pregnant which forces Adonis to reevaluate his goals. In one shot Caple has Morgenthau, frame the two in near darkness. Bianca is in the bedroom while Adonis is in the bathroom on the right side of the screen. The two separated by a wall, both in darkness. A visual representation of the emotional state of their relationship.

It’s moments like these where Caple shows his visual strength. Unfortunately, he’s hampered by the threadbare script. The drama in it is good, but not enough to sustain the runtime. We are treated to long bouts of Adonis stalling the rematch because he is afraid. The problem is they are the same scenes over and over.

Adonis and Bianca’s baby is born deaf causing Adonis to wonder how he will deal with her. Rocky, rightfully, lectures Adonis on his idiocy. Seeing the error in his thinking, he embraces his daughter with loving and open arms.

Since Creed II is an extension of the Rocky franchise we are treated to a training montage before the second fight. It’s about at this point where something clicks. I don’t know what it is but all I know is that I found myself nodding off a bit during the middle of Creed II. But once that training montage hits, heck, once the third act gets going, Creed II became a cinematic event.

In my review of First Man,  I talked about how the scene where we saw the launching of Apollo 11 was pure cinema. Now picture that same mastery of craft stretched out for some thirty or forty minutes and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to watch the last act of Creed II.

Once inside the ring for the final fight, Caple, Morgenthau, Ludwig Goransson, the composer, and the trio of editors combine their talents and commence a cinematic assault of sound, editing, acting, and camera work, the likes that it feels as if we’ve witnessed a massive rocket taking off into space. It is electrifying. All the threads, no matter how brittle and thin, come together.  Every actor plays a part in the culminating elation of this gloriously framed and choreographed dance of violence mixed with ballet.

Creed II switches from a bland sequel with highlights of sometimes interesting heartfelt moments between characters into a magnificent sensory overload of a spectacle. Even better the climax of the fight was a pleasant and satisfying surprise. For a movie that appears to have been phoning it at times the ending of Creed II is a rapturous experience.

Yes, Creed II at times feels as if it’s reaching for a reason for the fight between Viktor and Adonis to happen. Parts of the movie drag and the notion that Adonis lost the fight because he had the wrong motive is a genre staple that feels as if even the makers of Creed II find it suspect.

I can’t help but think of that line from Adaptation, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, or whatever. But wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”  Turns out he’s not wrong.


Image courtesy of MGM Pictures

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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‘Vox Lux’ Goes for Broke Almost to the Breaking Point

Jeremiah

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Warning: Vox Lux contains scenes depicting a school shooting that could trigger some viewers. It also has many scenes with rapidly flashing lights that may trigger those with photosenstivey disorder.

Vox Lux is a magnificently flawed film of abject fury and empathy. Not since this year’s earlier Sorry To Bother You have I witnessed a movie so consumed with passion and anger. I’m just not sure it’s any good.

It seems to be railing against our current obsession with what I guess you could call “distraction culture.” A culture aware of the horrors and atrocities going on around them but whose own futility at what can be done is usurped by its own need to feel joy. Vox Lux argues there are distractions and then there is ignoring things so you don’t have to think about them.

Yes, it’s healthy to practice self-care and not get too wrapped up in things beyond our control. But at what point is looking away to avoid being overcome by the horror of it all turn into ignoring everything else except for our own obsessive need for gratification. At least I think that’s the main thrust.

To say Vox Lux is about any one thing would be foolhardy. Gun violence, the dehumanization of celebrities, and how women are marketed less for talent and more for their bodies are all fair game. Truthfully I’m not sure exactly what it’s trying to say. It’s hard to tell. For as giddy as I was watching Vox Lux I was also frustrated because I couldn’t quite understand what the film was trying to do. It didn’t help that the ending can be perceived as either irritating or brilliant. The film walks the knife’s edge of artistic brilliance and pretentious nonsense.

Brady Corbet structures Vox Lux as a fable about a young girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) who survives a school shooting. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, his voice lends an air of forthright impenetrable honesty as he regales about the girl’s life. Celeste survives with a permanent spinal injury. At the memorial for the other students, she and her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) play a song they wrote. The result is Lady Gaga/Beyonce inspired superstardom.

Vox Lux is one of those movies where I can tell you what happened but it doesn’t do it the justice of sitting there seeing it all unfold. Corbet makes every scene palpable, every frame pulsates with energy. The film feels alive and as such seems untamable as it explodes onto the screen before our eyes. Operatic and feverish, it never lets up no matter how much you may wish it to.

Celeste survives a school shooting, this is true. But Corbet makes us feel the horror and the tension of living through the school shooting. The ubiquitousness of gun violence both in our media and in our day to day lives has perhaps deadened the very real, violent, and disturbing reality of the actual experience. The driving anger of Vox Lux is in our inability to hold onto meaningful experiences and instead, dropping them and moving on to something else.

Natalie Portman plays a grown-up Celeste. A world-famous pop star, she is all but coming apart at the seams. In many ways, Vox Lux looks at how we enshrine celebrities and make them impossible beings. Portman’s Celeste is a pop star on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With her thick Staten Island accent and slicked back hair, Celeste powers through when she should clearly take a breath.

Celeste has a daughter of her own now, Albertine, also played by Cassidy. In an abrasive and uncomfortable scene, the adult Celeste attempts to have a heart to heart with her daughter. But Celeste is so closed off due to her stardom and drug abuse, she seems incapable of basic human connection. Her daughter asks her why she hates Ellie. Celeste responds with a rambling monologue about how nothing we do matters anymore because people just move on to the next thing. “I did a commercial a few years back. That stupid little thing where the rose opened up and I was little fairy inside with a soda can. I thought it’d ruin me. Know what happened? Nothing. Everybody forgot about it.”

It’s an old joke on the internet that the internet never forgets, but it’s only partially true. Yes, the internet is forever but our attention spans are not. Vox Lux isn’t pointing fingers so much as expressing a deep and volatile dissatisfaction with the way things seem to be heading. Art can offer answers but sometimes art can just be a cipher for our volatile and, sometimes, corrosive emotions.

At the same time during this same scene, the manager of the restaurant comes over and asks Celeste if he could take a picture with her. “I’m not going to post it. I just want it for me.” A celebrity’s time is rarely their own. Social media has made fans voracious in their need to be seen with people who “are just like them” but who never get to be treated like normal people.

Portman turns in what is her second best performance this year behind the earlier and still haunting and gorgeous Annihilation. But her work in Vox Lux is jaw-dropping for the kinetic energy she imbues in her Celeste. It is a fearless performance. Portman all but leaps from the screen and into the audience. Her Celeste is larger than life as she struts, dances, throws temper tantrums, all before turning to the screen and smiling. We root for Celeste while acknowledging what an absolute hell it must be living in her sphere.

After getting high, and having sex with Jude Law’s character known only as The Manager, the two stumble out of Celeste’s hotel room. I mention the scene only because Portman does one of the best pratfalls I’ve seen all year. I howled because Vox Lux is a movie that constantly pokes you, daring you to express either frustration or laughter. At the very least it wants you to feel something and tries in earnest to get, at the very least, a rise out of us.

The tightrope act the actors have to walk in the film is how nuanced they are. Law’s Manager character is as flawed and fleshed out as anyone in Mary Queen of Scots. He is at once kind and caring while also being manipulative and brusque. Notice the storm of conflicting emotions on Law’s face, and Portman’s for that matter, when she walks in on him holding Ellie in her arms. For all it’s bravado it’s the quiet moments between the screeching vibrato of its tone is where Vox Lux holds it’s most haunting and galvanizing power.

Much of the film’s power comes from the harsh and ingenious editing of Matthew Hannam. Just as you think we’ve got a bead on its rhythms it switches gears and out of our grasp. Aided by Lol Crowley, the cinematographer, the two create a living pulsating piece of artistry hellbent on making sure their screams into the abyss are heard. Crowley never puts the camera in a boring or wrong place. Even if the angle might be familiar the lens or lighting make it seem fresh and new. It allows us to decide for ourselves how we feel about certain moments and reactions.

I mentioned Portman’s pratfall earlier. While the theater was not packed, it was far from empty, but I was the only one laughing. I tell you this to illustrate how the film works differently for different people. A scene may be darkly comedic to me but to you or someone else, it may play as unbearably tragic.

During the last act of the film, we see Celeste perform her latest album, Vox Lux, to a teeming throng of adoring fans. Magically the concert footage feels like an actual pop concert. The vibrant and inventive energy the film has worked so hard to cultivate never evaporates. I sat in awe as they seamlessly blended realism with the dreamlike imagery of surrealism. Corbet, Crowley, and Hannam have sewn together disparate scenes that would in a lesser director’s hands seem like patchwork.

The ending, as previously stated, is abrupt; almost daringly so. A crucial piece of information is revealed just seconds before Corbet cuts to black. Because of how Vox Lux is presented, many moments seem weird or odd so after a while, we do not think much of them. But Corbet, mere seconds before the end drops a bombshell of a revelation that might be true or not. Dafoe’s narrator, whose voice exudes authority and honesty, delivers the line almost as an afterthought. I don’t know if it makes Vox Lux an inarguable masterpiece or if it pushes the film over the line from operatic to camp trash.

Most movies never know when to quit. Vox Lux quits arguably too soon. When I realized the credits were rolling, it took me a few seconds to realize it was over. Time flew by, though I’m not sure I would call the time spent watching Vox Lux fun. Engaging, certainly but calling it fun seems shallow somehow.

I like movies that are fun but sometimes I think we value the movies that are merely fun over the movies that are not. As if a movie not being fun is somehow an excuse not to engage with it. I’m not arguing that movies that are boring are good. I’m merely saying that, if we are to call movies art, then we should allow for a broader sense of what we demand from them.

Still, when the lights came on and I struggled to catch my breath, I knew some would find it too much. It is not a film for everyone, it never pretends to be. Its brashness and audacity have stayed with me and I get kind of giddy just thinking about it. Vox Lux is an act of untamed cinematic grandiosity that flails about with such brashness you might end up kind of annoyed. I loved every minute of it.


Image courtesy of Neon

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Mary Queen of Scots vs. the Patriarchy

Jeremiah

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I am normally not a fan of period pieces set in the Elizabethan era. I came up in the 90’s back when Hollywood was flushed with them. Despite this genre prejudice I found myself utterly absorbed by Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. A smart, complex, enthralling tragedy so well paced and woven the Bard himself would be pleased.

Of the many feats Mary Queen of Scots somehow pulls off, is the slaying of the insistent but moronic myth that movies like these cannot be populated by queer people or people of color. They have always existed and are a part of history; regardless of what decades of whitewashed historical epics might have said. The inclusiveness of Rourke’s film is as refreshing as it is bold.

While Mary Queen of Scots may present itself as a costume drama about how Mary (Saoirse Ronan) tried and failed to unify Scotland and England, it is only partly about that. At its heart, it is a tragedy about two women Mary and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) and how they are the head of their church and country but each sits at the heart of the patriarchy.

I’m not sure how historically accurate the script by Beau Willimon is but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real and when it comes to storytelling, that is the best we can hope for. Exiled to Scotland, the Catholic Mary Stuart attempts to bridge a peace with the Protestant Elizabeth I. Elizabeth refuses to marry or have children thus cementing her hold on the crown. Mary, on the other hand, is quite happy to marry and is, in fact, planning on having a child thus giving her a claim to the throne.

Don’t worry, Mary Queen of Scots is much more fascinating and moving than it sounds. For starters, Robbie’s Elizabeth is a woman on her own surrounded by men all but demanding she marry and sire an heir. Robbie is, per usual, magnetic.

Elizabeth confesses to her advisor William Cecil (Guy Pearce), “I am a man. If I were to marry, my husband would surely wish to be my king. I will not bow to any king. I am the queen. You are the closest thing to a wife I shall ever have.” The moment is a perfect marriage of the perfect words for the perfect actress.

Mary Queen of Scots is shockingly adept at showing how remarkably little power women in power have when their counsels and envoys are men. Schemes and double crosses are made both for power but also so to free the country from “the yoke of female rule”. Time and time again Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I remain always pitted against each other.

Mary wishes nothing but to be named merely the next in line for the crown. But Elizabeth’s men cannot tolerate a Catholic laying claim and Mary’s men cannot fathom bowing to a Protestant. Round and round it goes with treachery and betrayal littering the road. Willimon’s script has an aura of fate inscribed into its structure. Even as Mary is charmed by Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) we know he will be her downfall. Not because she is weak but because it will allow, by technicality, for there to be a way to kick her off the throne.

Ronan’s Mary loves her country even though it seems not to return her love. Ronan does not have the fierceness that Robbie has and in fact, her Mary seems innocent and naive comparatively. But Ronan is sly in her performance. Much like Elizabeth, we underestimate her but we soon grow to root for her.

Lord Darnley’s inevitable betrayal is uncovered and Mary is counseled to execute him. “I will not behave as some woman Henry the VIII beheading my husbands just to secure my throne. I took a vow to honor and love him.” Though he may not live with her, or rule with her, she will not break a vow taken before God.

Mary and Elizabeth both show courage and principle in a world filled with men who have neither. At one point Elizabeth, suffering from the pox, ailing, but still full of fire and grace, wonders, why she shouldn’t just name Mary as successor. Her advisors point out her failings to which Elizabeth laughs. In one of the best scenes Elizabeth lays out all that has been done to Mary and yet she still stands.

Mary for her part is dealing with a recently quashed civil war, a renegade Cleric John Knox (David Tennant) and a gay husband who is being blackmailed by her most trusted advisors to take the crown and give it to her brother James (James McArdle). Unlike Elizabeth, she refuses to give up her femininity or her right to love and passion. Rourke never says which queen is right or wrong, only that each queen is ruling in the way she feels is best.

Willimon’s script lays out each character so fully that we understand where each character is coming from even after only just meeting them. We understand Tennant’s Knox when he argues with Mary about accepting the Catholics. Willimon’s deep and abiding empathy flows through the very text of Mary Queen of Scots and adds to the verisimilitude of the story.

Gemma Chan, who was so wonderful in this year’s earlier Crazy Rich Asians is magnificent as Elizabeth Hardwick. A role with barely any words, she plays a friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s. Chan’s glances tell us more than dialogue can as she becomes increasingly worried about her queen.

Rourke and Willimon surround both Queens with an inner circle of ladies, each an extension of how the queen is perceived. Elizabeth’s are comforting but often quiet and reserved. Mary’s are much more outgoing and effusive in their praise. Mary show’s an inclusive streak herself when she allows a bard who seems to enjoy wearing dresses into her fold. She treats him as she treats her other ladies, and they accept him as so.

Scotland is a countryside we’ve often seen in movies. John Mathieson, who shot Logan, shoots Mary Queen of Scots with a lush and deft eye for rolling hills and misty beaches. For all the beauty he and Rourke never let us forget the grimy reality of the times. Yes, there are castles, but they are made of stone, the chairs do not look comfortable and when it rains, there is little hope of getting dry.

Mary Queen of Scots is breathtaking in its intimacy and drawn out tension. It is Rourke’s directorial debut in film and it is an announcement of confidence and joy of a craft. She has created a world that feels lived in and whose drama and characters feel immediate and real.

Full of political intrigue, but never dull or pompous, this is a generous movie filled with many tiny moments and gestures on the sides of the frame. It takes a great talent to portray a tragic tale of love, sisterhood, betrayal, and envy in such a way we feel exuberant rather than exhausted. Rourke is such a talent.


Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

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Avengers: Endgame Revealed

Bo

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avengers endgame reveal

Just ignore the silly name. We all know Endgame is a bit stupid and maybe the internet can shame Marvel into changing it. Regardless of the name, we have our first look at Marvel’s epic conclusion to the story begun in Infinity War. The Avengers are back to undo the damage Thanos wrought upon the universe.

We don’t see anything unexpected here. Half of all life is gone, our heroes are sad, Tony Stark is lost in space on the verge of death (not really), and they have a plan to undo the Snap. Steve Rogers lost his beard, and I don’t mean whatever woman he currently “dates” to distract from his feelings for Tony. Hawkeye is back and Ant-Man shows up. Really the only thing missing is Captain Marvel. Come on, Marvel, we all know she will be there. You want Captain Marvel to make even more money than it already will? Let people not in the know aware of her role in the new Avengers movie.

In this humble writer’s opinion, Infinity War did a stunningly effective job with the ensemble superhero movie and set a huge bar for this latest entry to not only clear but even match at all. Can they possibly recapture that magic again? Who will live or die? What will the new Avengers team look like in the end? How will they undo Thanos’s villainy?

All I know is that Nebula better be a feature attraction here. Her relationships with both Thanos and Gamora demand it.

Avengers: Endgame will snap half the money out of existence this April.


Video and Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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